Modi's Approach To Israel In Stark Contrast To What Gandhi Sought

Published: April 16, 2018 16:40 IST
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Even as Hinduism is religion while Hindutva is politics, so is Judaism religion while Zionism is politics. It is this that unites Modi and Netanyahu, masters both at twisting religious sentiment into political advantage. This also explains why neither is a Gandhian for the Mahatma observed in an interview to The Jewish Chronicle in October 1931, "Zionism in its spiritual sense is a lofty aspiration. Zionism meaning reoccupation of Palestine has no attraction for me."

The other thing that unites Modi and Netanyahu is a report in Israel's leading newspaper, Haaretz, of responses received from "historians, political scientists, biographers and former colleagues" of their rating of Israel's PMs. Netanyahu comes bottom of the list. Any similar survey of Modi would yield the same result in India. No wonder, then, that Netanyahu and Modi have discovered they are brothers under the skin.

The Palestinians have not been fooled by Modi's "balancing act" between Israel and Palestine. As I learned on a longish visit to Jerusalem and Occupied Palestine last week, no one trusts Modi's fake attempt to play honest broker between Zionists grabbing all the Palestinian land they can lay their hands on and Palestinian nationalists fighting for their freedom. They know the Modi dispensation represents the lowest ever point in India-Palestine relations.

Palestine's leading independent public intellectual, Dr Mustafa Barghouti, former unattached political adviser to Yasser Arafat and independent member of the Palestine National Council, is blunt in his assessment when I call on him. There has been, he says with brutal frankness, "a very serious deterioration" of late in India-Palestine relations.

Palestinians in general and Dr Barghouti in particular anxiously enquire about the future of India-Palestine solidarity under Modi. They are visibly relieved when I reply that it is a toss-up whether Modi will outlast Netanyahu (who is facing criminal indictment in Israeli courts that have been commendably harsh on straying Israeli political leaders) as the impending Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav tie-up will ensure the end of the Modi aberration in the next general elections about a year from now, or very possibly even earlier.

Dr Barghouti brings me up to date on the present contours of the Palestine issue. Their most pressing concern is Trump's mad decision to shift the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of Israel as an independent state, whatever the cost to the Palestinians. It rendered a huge majority of Palestinians refugees in their own home or exiles denied their Right of Return. For the Palestinians, this was 'Al-Naqba' - the Catastrophe. Trump's lunacy adds insult to injury.

Trump's decision, says Barghouti, paves the way to the annexation by Israel of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, denying forever to the Palestinians their last hope of making East Jerusalem, that houses both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, sacred to Muslims next only to the Ka'aba, the capital of the State of Palestine should the "two-state" solution favoured by the UN since at least 1967 ever reach the point of sincere implementation.

This climaxes the extension of Jewish settlers into the Palestinian territories that has been encouraged by the Israeli authorities. The number of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land has exploded from 1,12,000 in 2002 to over 7,50,000 now, underlines Dr Barghouti. A staggering 62 percent of the land allotted to the Palestine National Authority is now in the hands of Jewish settlers, cut off from all contact with Palestine or access to Palestinian Arabs by high walls and barbed wire that slice Palestinian territories into isolated Bantustans reminiscent, indeed copied from, erstwhile White-ruled South Africa's abhorrent racist practice of apartheid, now regarded in international law as a "crime against humanity".

Dr Barghouti emphasizes his point by drawing attention to a superb recent report by the world-renowned authority in international jurisprudence, Prof Richard Falk of Princeton (incidentally, himself a Jew). Charges Falk, apartheid through settlements is being practiced by Israel. The aim, says Dr Barghouti, is to consolidate the Palestinian lands under its control so as to create a de facto situation the Israelis intend to make de jure.

Worse still, by seeking to legitimize Israel's aspirations to all of Jerusalem, the US is also seeking to legitimize Israel's attempts to go back on the commitments Israel has made on other key elements of a possible Two-State solution, such as settlements, borders and water.

In addition, the US and its allies have so sharply reduced funding to UNRWWA, which looks after Palestinian refugees, that the aim clearly is to finally end the status of "refugees" accorded to Palestinians driven like cattle out of their homes to create Israel and Israel's subsequent illegal expansion into Palestinian territories that Israel has forcibly occupied against all tenets of international law.

Pushed into a corner, Barghouti said, the President of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmood Abbas, is trying to create an alternative international forum where Israel's outrages might be exposed and Palestine's legitimate aspirations accorded due recognition. But Barghouti feels the PNA lacks the international clout to successfully work that route. He points to how the French initiative was rebuffed by Netanyahu and how even the Swedes, who are the best disposed to Palestine among the European powers, lack the influence to give any real teeth to an alternative forum. 

Between them, Trump and Netanyahu have so decisively altered the balance of power against Palestine that Barghouti is convinced Palestine might be best advised to avoid entanglement in any negotiating process while concentrating on a strategy that aims at restoring the balance of power in Palestine's favour.

This, says Barghouti, emphatically does not mean acquiring military power to match the Israelis or violence or terrorism to bring Israel to its knees. The struggle has to be non-violent to have any chance of succeeding. "Gandhi!" I exclaim. Barghouti nods in acknowledgement, adding that the on-going non-violent popular protest in Gaza has attracted world sympathy because everyone can see that the gross excesses and human rights violations are all to Israel's account. The path of violence must be eschewed. Strict non-violent protest should be the norm, whatever the provocation, and the Isarelis will, of course, resort to every form of provocation. 

Second, says Barghouti, the BDS route must be advocated as the one best designed to give positive outcomes. "BDS?" I say, slightly bewildered - for I've heard of it but have had no information about results other than mild tokenism. Barghouti patiently explains. "BDS - Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions". Citing the example of Deutsche Bank and Norwegian banks that refuse to do any business with companies engaged in trading with or investing in Israel, Barghouti claims BDS has cost Israel billions and will really begin to pinch the Israeli economy where it hurts as the BDS movement spreads.

I remain somewhat skeptical as Barghouti moves to his next point that the people of Palestine need to be economically sustained as they move to reap the demographic dividend that is imminently coming their way - an exponential increase in the Arab population of Israel-Palestine, notwithstanding the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, and unrestrained immigration incentives for Jews to flood into Israel and the Occupied Territories. Already in Palestine as a whole (that is, including Israel), the Arab population has begun to match the Jews in number. I smile as I recall a Hamas leader telling me 20 years ago on my visit to Gaza, "We're making Palestine in our bedrooms - for while the exodus of Jews out of Israel gathers pace, our numbers grow apace in our land. Israel itself will become an Arab-majority state in the space of a few decades."

What militates against the realization of these dreams is disunity - Palestinian disunity within and Arab disunity without. Within Palestine, Hamas and Fatah remain irreconcilable and Barghouti sees the principal domestic political task of Palestinians as having primarily to do with themselves - to bring Hamas and Fatah together, with a view to restoring the unity between Gaza, where Hamas rules, and the West Bank, where Fatah seeks to rule.

As for Arab unity, Barghouti rhetorically asks: when were the Arabs truly united? Surely at the start, I venture to suggest. Shaking his head, Barghouti clarifies that even in 1948, when Arab unity was allegedly at its peak, the total strength of the Arab armies was only 11,000 as against Israel's 61,000, and by the time the 1948 war ended, the total Arab forces, including the Palestinians, was no more than 16,000 as against the 1,12,000 soldiers deployed eventually by Israel. Moreover, while the West, and the US in particular, ensured the best available arms for the Israelis, rampant corruption and even blatant subversion in the Arab monarchies that put together their rag-tag forces meant Israel's victory in an unequal combat was assured even before the first shot was fired and could be taken for granted.

Now, sectarian rivalries, especially Shia-Sunni rivalries, are being stoked in the name of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria, and Saudi intervention in Yemen's on-going civil war. This has gravely weakened the cohesion of the Arab camp, further weakening an already shaky solidarity between non-Palestinian Arabs and the Arabs of Palestine.

In these circumstances, concluded Barghouti, the only way forward is persistent non-violent protest, as Gandhi's India had shown. 

He then invited me to explain why India's support for the Palestinian cause was so palpably weakening. 

I said through all the years after the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the Indian freedom movement under Gandhi and Nehru had stood steadfast in its support for the Mahatma's fundamental principle, enunciated in a landmark article in November 1938 in his journal Harijan that "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French."

After Independence, all the way from Jawaharlal Nehru through Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi, India and the Nonaligned Movement had stood four-square behind Palestine because the Palestinian cause was an anti-Imperialist and anti-colonial cause. Now, as advocacy for the cause was increasingly taking on a religious hue, it strengthened the hands of those like Modi and the religio-political forces he both represents and embodies to portray the Palestine issue in religious terms and damn any Indian support for Palestine as "appeasement" of India's main minority, the Muslims. The more Palestinians made Palestine a Muslim cause, the more would pro-Israeli voices in Indian politics be strengthened. I pleaded for a secular advocacy of their cause emphasizing that Palestinian Arabs included both Christians and Jews and freedom of religion for all those who lived in Palestine and worshipped in Jerusalem, as essential to keeping India's dwindling support for Palestine from dwindling even further. 

Barghouti nodded in grave agreement. We would, he said, offering me his visiting card, continue to keep in touch.

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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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